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St. Louis by Richard Green

The King and I

Also see Bob's review of Street Scene

King and I
Elena Zahlmann as
Simon of Legree

This is quite simply the most beautiful show I have ever seen at the Municipal Opera, the huge 14,000-seat outdoor theater, in nearly 40 years of living in St. Louis. For the uninitiated, the venue is described as the nation’s largest and oldest outdoor theater.

But even with its incomparable beauty, to borrow from Consumer Reports, there are a few "sample defects" in the 2006 model of this Rodgers & Hammerstein vehicle. Plucky (very plucky) Leslie Denniston has a good four inches on delightful Francis Jue, as Anna and the King of Siam, respectively. And it seems quite difficult for her to appear conflicted in challenging and correcting the royal personage, which no doubt is pleasing to the 7,000 women in the audience. But it is somewhat outside the received pronunciation of the role. To put it more simply, she frequently seems to want to kick his ass. This may be a recurrent problem for director Paul Blake, who toned down the father in his recent Meet Me In St. Louis so much that the women in the famous Smith household came off like harridans for reproaching that poor gentleman. Though his direction is generally superb, Mr. Blake shows a tendency toward pandering in this respect.

But back to the encomiums: The "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" playlet is jaw-droppingly magnificent. Yumiko Niimi dances the part of the fleeing slave Eliza with beauty and grace and Andrea Burns, as Tuptim, is so very splendid in every respect. She and Paolo Montalban (as Lun Tha) are the most outstanding pair of lovers ever to grace the sprawling stage under the trees.

In addition to the staging of "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" (sorry, "the little house of Uncle Thomas"), which is completely hypnotic (with choreography adapted by Gemze de Lappe), the death scene at the end of the evening has beautiful coincidental bows to the young prince (Kasey Parks) matched with Orville Mendoza (as the commanding prime minister), as the latter actor makes a mirrored bow to listen to Mr. Jue’s heart. There is another beautiful mirrored bow a few moments later when Ms. Denniston (rather unexpectedly) collapses in grief. Earlier, at the act one curtain, Mr. Jue and Ms. Denniston share a delightful winking moment down on the boards by the orchestra pit.

"Adapting the choreography" at the Muny is usually code for filling the impossibly long entrances and exits on a stage suitable for the World Soccer Match. The Kansas City Costume Company supplies outstanding, glittering Siamese garb, though my companion and I had a chuckle over the very modern sandals of the tertiary males in the opening scene, on the docks near Bangkok. And my companion eschewed the scenery for being flat and painted (and in the case of the temple backdrop, a bit silly). But he’d just moved here from Seattle, and didn’t know how hard it is to keep these out-sized shows moving. I thought it was one of the nicest roll-away series of sets the Muny had ever presented.

In a newspaper article, Ms. Denniston celebrated the approximately 30-piece orchestra (led by Kevin Farrell) for always being able to follow her lead. Regrettably, Ms. Denniston (who is very enjoyable otherwise) should perhaps be following Mr. Farrell’s lead more often, especially in the opening number, which she insisted on rushing through, and to a lesser degree in other songs. Both she and the otherwise excellent Reveka Mavrovitis (as Lady Thiang) appeared somewhat breathless early on. I ascribe this to opening night nerves, mostly, because the temperature was a relatively mild 88 degrees shortly before opening, and the legendary humidity was a restrained 49%, at least officially, far from the lakes and lagoons of the great park.

The very large orchestra brings out bits of music I never remembered from my childhood, in a lavish and lush series of complex arrangements. On stage, Mr. Jue brings a terrific sense of regal dominance to the show. But Ms. Denniston has a hard time with the Victorian idiom, appearing more like the headstrong Maureen O’Hara in her presentation than the wily Gertrude Lawrence, which of course, is largely the responsibility of Mr. Blake. But thanks to him, and to all of them, The King And I remains one of the greatest re-tellings of the battle of the sexes ever put on stage.

For the opening night of this summer’s season, the many thousands in attendance may have been surprised that the National Anthem was not sung, a break with tradition. This may sound like quibbling in a town better known for its baseball than its theater. But the baseball motif was still very much in evidence as corn chips and hot cheese and jalapeńos were greedily consumed on all sides, even as Ms. Burns and Mr. Montalban expressed the sadness of their love: ever having to ‘kiss in a shadow.’

Through Sunday, June 25, 2006. The Elton John/Tim Rice musical Aida opens June 26th. Other shows this summer include The Wizard Of Oz, Gypsy, White Christmas, Oliver!, and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. Each show runs Monday through Sunday, only in St. Louis. All shows begin at 8:15 p.m. For information, call (314) 534-1111 or visit them online at www.muny.org


Photo: © Muny


-- Richard T. Green

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